I had never read 1984 before this week. I felt like I had, which is at least part of the reason why I’m slow to pick up many classic novels. 1984’s influences are far-reaching. We know what it means when a government plan is called ‘Orwellian’ and we know to be fearful. And the 1984 ideas are seen all the time in pop culture, from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to more mainstream titles like V for Vendetta and The Hunger Games. So yes, I felt like I knew the book well before ever opening it. But even so, I must remember that that should never be the reason to deny oneself a good book.
I was of two minds as to whether 2017 was the year to finally read 1984. First off, you should know that I am not pleased with the results of the 2016 US election. (Warning: I have opinions.) Not just because my choice lost, but because I feel unsafe under the leadership of the man we got. Dude wants to be a dictator and it’s only because I doubt he’s ever read a book that I know he didn’t get all his ideas from dystopian science fiction.
Apparently, I was not alone in thinking of fictional dystopian regimes when our newly elected maniac started telling us what the truth is. 1984 became a bestseller again shortly after the introduction of ‘alternative facts’ to our daily discussion. (The Handmaid’s Tale and other dystopian classics also saw sales bumps.) I wanted to read 1984 in 2017 because I wanted to see what the book had predicted and wonder how we’d not seen it coming (also, hey, it’s supposed to be a good book). On the other hand, the current administration had left me flipping between rage and despair on an almost daily basis, and did I really want to explore more of that in fiction? Isn’t now the time for comedy and escapism? Well, I guess curiosity got the best of me.
So, yeah. Reading 1984 in 2017 was one of the strangest, most upsetting experiences I’ve ever had with a work of fiction.
Big Brother’s party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears in favor of their version of the truth. Does that sound familiar?
The first half, which detailed how the world of Oceania worked, was almost too much for me. I nearly quit on it. The book’s prose is brilliantly written, the world-building so precise it feels (all too) real, and the plot, though simple on the surface, is addicting to unwrap. But in my current mindset, I was not prepared for how submissive Big Brother had made his people. That the resistance forces only exist in rumor is such a hopeless concept. In the first act, our hero Winston’s biggest act of rebellion is to write in a diary.
It was not until Winston fell in love that I began to see some hope. The lover escapes to a little apartment for lovemaking and whispered secrets was a rebellion on a small, personal scale. That their romance was doomed from the start was always obvious to me, and that the rebellion never resulted in anything more than the defiance of dead men was also quite clear.
It is a dark book. It is also an honest book. When truth no longer matters, neither do consequences or rule of law. War is fought because that’s the way of things. ("War is Peace.") International conflict is constant, though the enemy is always changing, despite what the state news says (We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia). It’s madness, but it’s a madness that’s been perfected for the purpose of beating the populace into submission.
Much of 1984 hits too close to home. It was not meant to be used as an instruction manual, but I suppose I see how it could’ve been helpful as such. (Sometimes I know I can sound like an alarmist, but isn’t the notion of living under a fascistic, truth-challenged dictatorship an alarming thought?) In the later pages, one of the high-ranking party officials comments on the failings of the Nazis, the communists, and so on. Big Brother’s party is successful because it is built on hate; hate for humanity, hate for the inferior, hate even, potentially, for life itself. “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.” And that, it occurs to me, is something that our orange friend has in common with Big Brother. There is no effort to show they’re meeting us half-way. There is no real effort to show they’re doing what they do for the good of the people. For the Environmental Protection Agency, he hires a guy that’s suing the Environmental Protection Agency. To oversee contraception at HHS, he hires a woman who doesn’t believe in contraception. It’s chaos, yes, but it’s also about stomping out the things we once held up and declared to be true. It is about stomping on us, too. However, unlike Big Brother’s hate, which was cold and precise, our man is powered by stupid hate, a bully’s hate, and unless greed proves his undoing, then his emotional stupidity may yet.
Our resistance is a resistance that’s unafraid, one that’s raised its voices and clenched its fists. We may have to endure some unendurable shit before the end, but I don’t see our world going the way of 1984, no matter the stunning similarities we already share with that work of fiction. (The book, I want to remind you, is nearly 70 years old.)
I will just reiterate that 1984 is a brilliant piece of writing. Well deserving of five stars and its time-tested status as a classic. I’m glad I finally read it. I did not enjoy reading it – most of the book is unpleasant, made only more so in 2017. But I’m glad to have taken that journey to Oceania. I got a good story out of it, and I might’ve gotten a little extra fuel to rage against the lies and stand for what I know to be true.
2 + 2 = 4, y’all.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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